After ten years and eight albums of varying quality, Berlin’s 17 Hippies – -one of global music culture’s best-kept secrets operating under possibly its worst name — have produced their most accomplished set yet of likeable acoustic big-band music
There must be a joke in that name somewhere. The band’s early wild, Brecht/Weill-inspired cabaret performances certainly couldn’t have been less ‘hippy’, and over the years they have developed their mix of German cabaret, chanson, polka and more to the point where Heimlich emerges as just about the most sophisticated and varied collection of European roots-pop tunes that you could wish for. It’s joyous, life-affirming, yet with a subtle hint of Germanic melancholy that preserves an edge, a tone of light-hearted seriousness that always intrigues, and at times can even unnerve, the listener.
Singing in French and English as well as German, the ensemble actually numbers about thirteen members, deploying a shifting array of guitars, accordions, violins, ukulele, wind instruments and, perhaps crucially, not a drum in sight.
‘Schattenman’ (Shadowman) is a breathless opener — a madcap, 90-mile-an-hour theme tune for what could be a Balkan Keystone Cops scene, with a furious posse of violins, harmonica, flute and harmonica chasing a chugging amalgam of brass and acoustic instruments over the horizon, with the vocalists shouting encouragement over the top. ‘Son Mystère’, by contrast, is a haunting French-language gem seductively delivered by Kiki Sauer, with an evocative oboe line and an acoustic guitar, accordion and string base that gradually builds a ’60s French film-noir-style tension. Less seriously, ‘Tick Tack’ is a jaunty ukulele-led sing-along that evokes thoughts of what Marseille’s Moussou T e Lei Jovents might come up with were they to decamp to Berlin’s alternative music scene. Despite all these swings of mood and style — there’s a Cajun hoe-down and a ballad with a hint of Velvet Underground and Nico amongst it all — Heimlich rolls along in a cohesively entertaining manner. It’s the dream quirky soundtrack to every Euro-cinephile’s imagined favourite comedy, and it deserves to be number one throughout the continent.